AI enthusiast, Rita Arrigo, passionately believes in the potential of AI to deliver good for society. In fact, she believes AI is going to help the world survive the current challenges of environment, food supply, skill shortage – and more.
But Arrigo knows there’s a steep hill to climb – and she’s willing to roll up her sleeves and tackle it head on.

Certainly, her love affair – and ulta-commitment to AI – started many moons ago – kicking into high gear during her role at Microsoft and now as the newly appointed strategic engagement manager at CSIRO’s National AI Centre.

“There needs to be significant investment across the community in ethical, legal and social discussions about the implications and the way we want to use AI to deliver societal innovation,” Arrigo explains.

And her work is cut out for her. “The rest of the world is doing a lot in the AI sphere. Australia has a low adoption rate – and we want to change that. Currently, AI adoption is low with only two per cent of businesses indicating they are using AI.”

Stories Ink caught up with Arrigo to discuss her lessons learned from her vast and varied roles; how she was taught fierce feminism as a consequence of the Germaine Greer legacy; and why she’s so passionate about demystifying technology and on a mission to spread her love of AI.

Quick time frame of where you were born, raised, schooled. Tell us a bit about your: 

Birthplace/Upbringing/Childhood

I was born in Melbourne and grew up in Elwood in the 1970s. It was a haven for first generation migrants including Jewish, and Italian families.

I was lucky enough to have two brothers. My older brother studied computing and my competitive nature made me want to study engineering and computing – a step-up. I appreciate him inspiring me and Frank Arrigo now works at AWS, after 20 years at Microsoft.

Schooling

I attended St.Columba’s Primary School with Presentation Nuns. Growing up, I was a bit scientific, crafty and loved to laugh. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be, just that I was keen to take my love of math, speech and craft to the world.

I also attended an all-girls catholic school, Star of the Sea, where I made many connections and networks, and was taught fierce feminism as a consequence of the Germaine Greer legacy. Attending that school – and the connection with Greer – I was motivated to believe that anything is possible. I was also able to create a very strong network of female friends, which I really needed when I began studying engineering.

Growing up, what did you want to be?

All I knew was I wanted to go to university, and I was good at math and science. I knew I didn’t want to be stuck at home cleaning the house. So, a career was super important to me. I still don’t know who wants to clean the house, hence I’m obsessed with robots that can clean the house.

What were some of your first and most memorable jobs?

My first jobs were working at Monarch Cake shop, the famous Viennese style cake shop of Acland street for a neighbour. I then worked for Yann Cambpell Hore and Wheeler market research, travelling to Yallourn & Moe to visit Italian workers who had been injured at work and claiming work care. A study was commissioned to debunk the migrant worker concept of exploiting the system. Today, I remember it and it reminds me that many of these workers were injured using machinery that will now be robots like scrubbers, industrial cleaners etc.

Meanwhile, my first professional role was in PC support where I helped the female typing pool of a large construction company – Jennings Construction (the builder of Southbank) – use PCs and Word Perfect and manage their documents digitally. I supported secretaries to use PCs, 286’s with big floppy disks and WordPerfect. I also worked for Telstra when the Internet was known as the Big Pond.

Can you tell us about your role at CSIRO’s National AI Centre – and your vision as the strategic engagement manager?

I’m on a mission to increase the adoption of AI in Australia via strategic engagement, and through a responsible AI network. It will involve events and communications to make AI more friendly for businesses.

AI is the premier technology that’s going to help humanity solve some big challenges – from administrative burdens to productivity challenges – and will enable better customer service, and decision-making. Many of the things holding back small businesses are due to the administrative headaches and the challenges around innovation. Therefore, AI adoption will help Australia lead in the economy, with inclusion, and will help broaden skillsets, and bring value and a thriving ecosystem.

Is Australia lagging behind the rest of the world in AI adoption?

The rest of the world is doing a lot in the AI sphere. Australia has a low adoption rate – and we want to change that. Currently, two per cent of businesses indicate they are using AI. That’s too low and the government is worried. AI is predicted to be a $315 billion industry by 2028; with 1.2 million jobs by 2034, and 53 per cent of businesses are having difficulty knowing where to start.

Prior to joining CSIRO, what was your mission at Frazer-Nash Consultancy?

After leaving Microsoft, I wanted to take the learning of AI, machine learning and mixed reality back to engineering. There’s so much to be done to digitally enable our critical infrastructure, and the divide between Operation Technology and Information Technology is significant. I saw this as an exciting opportunity to enable dramatic improvements in energy, transport, mining, and defence.

I was keen to explore these technologies – AI, machine learning, mixed reality – as they became more focused on models. Leveraging digital technologies and modelling standards to enable rapid exploration of designs – using high fidelity simulation, data visualisation and web 3.0 technologies like Metaverse – was exactly the kind of emerging technology I wanted to get involved in.

My goal was to use advanced machine learning, modelling and simulation to dramatically improve our infrastructure and drive societal innovation – the intersection between science and engineering, data and digital and social and policy where societal innovation happens, where we move from consumers of stuff to citizens of our planet.

How did your journey lead you to be a communicator, an educator, and also on a mission to mentor others?

I’m passionate about demystifying technology. This passion started with Byte Into IT on 3RRR, a show focused on reducing techno fear and sharing the benefits of technology.

As I continued in my career working at Telstra – to create a channel for all the internet products and digital agencies – my work involved engaging beyond the IT department and into marketing, business and sales. This fuelled my ability to speak about business benefits versus technical features. As I entered Microsoft, the demands to engage in Digital Transformation with the business was escalating and as a digital advisor, I would work with executives to envision this transformation – and at the same time AI was emerging. Microsoft then appointed me as an AI Ambassador, which allowed me to be part of a global team, working on AI projects – and it supported me to get a deeper understanding of the possibilities of AI.

What do you love and find so fascinating about AI?

AI is going to help us survive the current challenges of the environment, food supply and skill shortage. There’s so much to do to support humanity into our next phase. I enjoy demystifying AI. For example, reducing the challenges of disabilities is possible with AI. People with eyesight issues can use computer vision to recognise people and buildings around them, use AI to translate text to audio and have audio navigation of cities to ensure independence and employability.

Additionally, farmers can dramatically increase the yield of their crops and livestock by predicting water and temperature with microclimates. Customer Service can make better experiences rather than administrative burdens. We can dramatically improve decision making – how and when to deliver public transport, create greener energy solutions, and predictive maintenance to improve asset uptime. We can reduce cognitive burdens for our health workers by digitising data collection and provide greater insights with data and prediction.

Imagine a situation where you could use sensors and IoT to better understand patient health from the home and dramatically improve patient care rather than building more hospitals. We can rethink how we augment our intelligence with risk modelling and analysis, and invent new AI-based enhanced products.

Can you highlight some of your career milestones?

My work in using Inclusive design to envision a Smart Canvas for ANZ Bank was super exciting. This was the beginning of imagining smart buildings and how they can support people with all abilities, and also my journey into the realisation that AI has the potential to make our cities, and spaces more inclusive. Next, working in transport allowed me to see how AI can make our cities safer, predicting potential dangerous situations and optimising traffic.

Recently, my work in bringing together RMIT and Monash to imagine an Immersive Virtual Reality Robotic Surgical Simulator, where a NERF – a fully-connected neural network that can generate novel views of complex 3D scenes, based on a partial set of 2D images, Deep Learning is used to create a 3D digital twin of the human for 2D scans. This provides surgeons with the ability to simulate the surgery on the personalised anatomy, which is an incredible leap forward for surgery to improve accuracy and reduce surgical risk.

What’s a fun fact or something people don’t know about you? 

I was a pivotal player in setting up Australia’s First Internet Café in 1995, and now an internet café is being set-up in the National Communication Museum opening early next year.

Have you had many challenges or hurdles to overcome? 

The key challenge I overcome daily: The unconscious bias that exists in my field. It’s prevalent in engineering – where there were two per cent females when I first started –  and in technology, and now in AI and engineering. There’s often a view that I sound different, look different and don’t behave the same way as the majority of people in the room. This results in having to recognise it first, and then work to overcome it.

What are your top priorities for the next 12 months?

My health and lifestyle has taken a back seat – so bringing it to the forefront will be an important objective to me.

As a philanthropist and communicator, what advice or lessons learned can you offer?

Follow your passions and be a lifelong learner.

Looking back on your career, is there anything you’d change? 

Probably be less transparent. I think the ‘worksona’ is real and sometimes wearing your heart on your sleeve is not always the best approach. So being able to contain my ‘sharing’ to only work appropriate situations would definitely be something I would change.

What are some of your passions in life? 

I’m an art lover. I find exploring and appreciating creativity a wonderful thing. So I visit galleries and exhibitions around the world. I particularly like the Venice Art Biennale, which I’ve attended five times in my life and hope to attend again, as it’s a global pinnacle for art.

What exciting tech changes have you seen? 

I passionately believe in the potential of AI to deliver good for society, but there needs to be significant investment across the community in ethical, legal and social discussions about the implications and the way we want to use AI to deliver societal innovation. We can reinvent the way we work, play and live.

In Japan, for example, Toyota has built a woven city where there are only self-driving cars, and all homes are equipped with advanced robotics. I imagine in the next 5-10 years we will rapidly eliminate petrol cars; use the metaverse in a way to augment the physical with the digital; augment human ability by supporting dirty, dangerous, dull and dangerous work with robotics; and use machine learning to predict and understand the supply chain, customer service, agriculture yield, energy and the environment.

The next era of AI requires a scale, diversity and accuracy of data that’s impractical and in many cases impossible to capture through traditional means. The only way to produce the data we need is by synthesising it. And in order for AIs trained in simulation to succeed in the real world, it requires them to be trained in environments that are indistinguishable from reality – meaning that they have to be physically accurate, obeying the laws of physics. Our new metaverse will be interoperable and able to move between worlds. It will allow us to build and simulate virtual worlds and begin to see the world in 3D.

What do you wish to achieve moving forward?

I want to uplift the understanding of the benefits of technology on society – elevating it as an important subject taught at school and no longer relegated to those interested in tech or the IT department.

Enhance and harness technology skills of both individuals and businesses so they can use the language of technology to contribute to the modern world in much the same way that the written word created new knowledge and expanded human innovation and progress.

Do you know of a worthy ‘Close-Up’ contender? Get in touch with Jennifer at jennifer@storiesink.com.au to get the story captured.